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The United States, almost without a prayer.

World Cup Diary
Day Five Reviews & French-Kissing

First the United States gets crushed in its opening World Cup game. Then this: “The prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case on Monday advised Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, that he would not be charged with any wrongdoing, effectively ending the nearly three-year criminal investigation that had at times focused intensely on Mr. Rove.” So the United States is really behind as we go into day five, showing the world that they have no game on the field and no case off of it: if they’re not running around in double-armored Humvees, they’re as naked as Napoleon in his whoremonging bath. They played as poorly as any one side did through 11 games. If it wasn’t for the Czechs’ first-half performance, the match would have ranked as the most boring of the tournament (that honor so far goes to the England-Paraguay match). The Americans showed why FIFA’s world rankings are so idiotic. They’re not ranked fifth in the world, and on Monday they played as if they were ranked somewhere in the area of the Azores islands. Worst of all, they were dull, uninspired, a bunch of have-beens until Eddie Johnson was put in, in the second half, much too late to make the difference if Bruce Arena, the coach, had put him in to start the game. Let’s not dwell: the day had some wonderful football, beginning with the Australia-Japan match that the Australians pulled off in what seemed like a monsoon of goals in the last six seconds of the game after the Japanese had held them off and even outplayed them for the other 89.7 minutes. That’s what redeeming football is about: Until that monsoon, and Tim Cahill’s eruption, the Australians had deserved their loss; they walked off the field deserving heroes. The Italy-Ghana game was also a joy to watch—and a worry to the United States, who share the group. Ghana was far more energetic than the US, if not quite the inventive side it needed to be to pierce the Italian defense. But Ghana had a plan, and it almost worked: don’t even try to pierce the defense. Shoot long distance. And with 40 million dollar man Michael Essien doing the shooting, they almost pulled it off. FIFA’s portly pope Joe Blatter called it “the best soccer of the tournament so far,” as quoted in an Associated Press dispatch (did he really call it soccer?), and it might have been, but the Sweden-Trinidad game, despite its 0-0 tie, ranks up there as well.

On to today: First up, Togo-Korea. Too much attention has be paid the antics of Togo coach Otto Pfister, whose commitment to his team turned into a yo-yo game of threats, resignations and returns. Late last night he was still not left his home in Zurich, and now I’m getting conflicting reports about his whereabouts. But he could be on a train to Saskatchewan for all care: his presence is irrelevant. It’s the game that counts. Togo, a sliver of a finger-nation squashed between Ghana and Benin on the West African coast, qualified, barely, by out-pointing rising African power Senegal, and by losing just two games in its qualifiers, so it deserves to be here. But the Koreans are a strong side too, as they showed us on their home grass four years ago. This should be a fun match. France-Switzerland? Ah. Une bataille de vieux. France is as old as the American side that was filded yesterday: Zidane, Trezeguet, Henry: the trinity that gave France its one and only World Cup on French soil in 1998. They’re all still here, but as 2002 showed us, they can be a team of terrific heartbreaks. They left in the first round in 2002, scoring not a single goal! As I recall, the Americans made it to the quarterfinals that year, proving that rankings and history and good wines don’t mean crap when it comes down to the pitch. Still, I have to admit that French football at its best is as good as the kisses named after the best parts in Diderto’s soft-porn, so let’s hope the French are on their game. Switzerland, on the other hand, is in football as in life more of an approximation of the non-entity that it prefers to be, coasting in the shadows of others’ glories while playing the dark-horse opportunist. Not big on scoring goals when it counts, and, like Germany of old and Italy of any time, they prefer not to score goals at all.

And Brazil-Croatia? This is the first big-hitters' game of the tournament. Fireworks, passion, samba, physical play: it'll all be here. And here's where we find out if this really is the best side the Brazilians have put together since 1970. For the sake of this tournament, where the goals have been too few and the play, so far, not quite the religious experience it ought to be, let's hope it is.

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